Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It's in the Past...And Now, We Toast -- At the Drive-In

While I can't say that mixed emotions, hormones, and a bit of over-thinking weren't at the root of the final outburst, there was only one band's end that brought me to tears. Yeah, it was high school. Yeah, it was one of the rougher years of high school (though my years in it were not all that bad, to be honest). Still, I never saw them live, and I likely never will, unless their reunion turns into something more than a handful of festival shows. I've known other fans without having to seek them out, converted various friends, and even know someone from their hometown--with all of this, no one has ever (if I recall correctly, at least) recognized my (rather minimalist, to be fair) shirt advertising them. That's not an exclusive claim, of course, but for a band that got this big--even if it was a flash when they were big--it's a bit surprising all the same.

They basically had one, one-and-a-half big hits that went around the country and the world openly. They were both off the same album, and it came out twelve years ago. The band has faded to a footnote (similar to how The Skids--see poll on the right, if you haven't--are mentioned, despite the impression I've gotten that they were well-thought of during their existence) in many ways, to the acts that followed in their wake from the splintered elements they left behind them. It's weird, really, as they feel more lost and faded than a lot of the much older (and also defunct) bands I listen to. Not in the sense of ingenuity, so much as the feeling that their impact on the public conscious, even the "indie" one, was minor, and more of a name than an associated music.

Doubtless, at least a few people who know me could guess exactly who I am talking about right now. It's possible, too, that some people will guess with some semblance of dread, though I don't think one ought to. Still, tastes are tastes, and there's no accounting for them, etc., but I ask--as always--that you approach this music, new, loved, old, hated, with an open mind and listen to it to hear what there might be in it to love for those of us who do, if you don't know already.

Here's that seemingly unrecognized shirt:

Yeah, the text is pretty small, they managed to cram the name of an album in with the name of the band, believe it or not.

Yes, it's At the Drive-In. The avenue through which I found them was my high school friend Matthew, who mentioned the name to me one day at school about twelve years ago. I went home to my legal MP3 source (for simplicity's sake, I'll give in this time and name it: eMusic) and searched. I found an album and an EP at the time, downloaded them and started listening. Now, Matthew knew them more from the newly released song that became their biggest "hit" (such as it is), "One-Armed Scissor":

Me? I was off listening to In/Casino/Out from 1998, and Vaya from 1999. I picked up Relationship of Command--the 2000 release after a label switch which contained "One-Armed Scissor"--and it went right past me when I first listened to it. A few more listens and it had a tendency (not helped by the fact that it was the only actual CD I owned by the band) to be my primary, if not only, listening for weeks and months on end when in a car. It ended up, amusingly enough, being borrowed by that same Matthew, who lost the cover to cracks and damage, replacing it with the lenticular remains of a copy of Tool's Ænima, for many years implanting in my head the image of a slightly distorted version of the cover as appropriate.

But those other two releases never really got eclipsed. Relationship was too clean or slick for me--but that's an unusual opinion, I've found, so don't read too much into it. Still, it was those two releases that made the most impression. I ended up with a physical copy of In/Casino/Out at the same time that I managed to bring  my Murder City Devils collection out of the purely digital realm as well, which I mentioned back when I first discussed that band. I eventually ended up with a copy of Vaya on white vinyl:

For a time, I listened to that record every single day. True, In/Casino/Out holds a special place as the first album I listened to--or, well, recording at all--and it had the song for which I was able to find a performance back when such things were not so easy as typing "" into the address bar in your browser--or even easier in some browsers. But Vaya was more unusual and interesting and "experimental" (a deadly word to use when writing about music, as it has heavy implications deadened by years of misuse, and occasional ignorant usage lacking awareness of previous instances of the "experimental" elements, but I'll risk it), playing with some more electronic noises and the like.

By this time, though, At the Drive-In had already broken up.

From their ashes rose two bands, which I don't want to discuss, mostly for reasons of negativity, as such discussions have brought me into much more heated conflict than far more important topics have in most cases. Heck, once with a stranger I thought we might have just flat out come to blows until his girlfriend (I think) intervened and separated us. Still, a cursory note won't hurt here. Those bands were known, colloquially, as "the afros" and "the non-afros" as all members left into new bands, and split on the lines of those who had huge balls of curly hair (Cedric Bixler, now Cedric Bixler-Zavala, and Omar Rodriguez, now Omar Rodríguez-López) and those who did not (Jim Ward, Tony Hajjar, and Paul--often credited, for some reason, as "Pall"--Hinojos). The former formed The Mars Volta, who first released an EP called Tremulant after a series of demos were put around the web. The latter formed Sparta, who first released an EP as well, called Austere, as well as a series of demos. Pursuit of both of these led to my second trip--though it was, of course, partly for a concert also taking place the same day--to "the Triangle" and my first trip to the original (repeatedly moved) Schoolkids Records in Raleigh.

I spent a good bit of time hanging around the Sparta message board in those days, which briefly put me in contact with the manager for both Sparta and At the Drive-In, Blaze James, who told me that 10" Vaya up there is apparently 1 of 1,000. I don't think this was finally the case, but there it is--another strange brush with fame via producer/management/etc.

I did end up seeing Sparta live a few years back, when they were touring around their third album, 2006's Threes (appropriately enough, I guess), and managed to like both of their opening acts, Sound Team and Lola Ray. The members of the band were shocked and pleased to find I had a copy of their second album (Porcelain, from 2004) on vinyl (so I have some lovely signatures from them), and I knew from interviews around the net not to bring up At the Drive-In around Jim, but felt no need to by then, as it was a mess of confused feelings and frustration to me as a fan at that point anyway.

At the Drive-In, though, hold a place in the realms of the trio of bands/artists that most affected my sensibilities, pushing me toward different approaches to music and different music in general, the other two being Mogwai and The Aphex Twin. I obsessed over all of them enough that it started my original forays into non-album tracks and my first experience of split releases, which pushed me into other bands, as well as leading me to the purchase of this beauty:
There's an extra funny story about that purchase, but I'll talk about it some other time--for the moment, it shall suffice to say that it nudged me into a few interesting directions regarding bands I'd sampled and some I ignored for years and ended up loving.

To contrast a bit and show the difference in production between the albums I love most and the most famous (and readily available) album, here's the closing track from In/Casino/Out, "Transatlantic Foe":

In/Casino/Out also boasts a different kind of peculiarity. The band started with a 7" EP (Hell Paso, naturally a reference to their origins in El Paso, TX) that was financially backed by Jim's college fund. In those days, Jim and Cedric were the only members of the band everyone came to know. Their second 7", ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo! was also released under the label Ward created (Western Breed Records), but it wasn't until 1996 and their debut full-length, Acrobatic Tenement, that the rest of the band began to appear. Omar played bass on the album with Jim and Cedric, Jim playing guitar and Cedric manning the mic without other instrument. The released album was a confused mess, as a recording session screw-up, where the band thought they were merely playing a test run, was defined as the session for the album proper--too late for them to put distortion on all the guitar parts. There's an interesting sound to a "clean" At the Drive-In album, but it is also a very weird sound:

1997 saw the release of the infamous EP El Gran Orgo, which the band has always encouraged people not to purchase, as they state that the label responsible for the release screwed them out of money. Jim, though, had gone on vacation throughout its recording and was not present on the record, leaving Omar to move into his place on guitar, and the introduction of Tony Hajjar on drums and Paul Hinojos on bass, forming the essence of the band from then on, which first appeared in totality on, yes: In/Casino/Out.

The peculiarity I referred to was this track, "Hourglass," track 10 on the album (appearing just before "Transatlantic Foe"). I encourage you to at least listen to some of the other tracks and compare them to this one, even if it does not suit your tastes:

The peculiarity, which is probably relatively clear at a listen, is that the vocalist on that song is actually not Cedric, it's Jim. Jim would later sing regularly as frontman for Sparta (though, in a reverse, he was coaxed into the band by Tony and Paul, rather than helping to start it as he did with At the Drive-In).

Their apex for me, personally, was their contribution to the split release with a band called Aasee Lake (about whom I know very little), a song called "Doorman's Placebo":

It had nothing at all to do with its rarity (something I feel relieved for, at least) because I'd just listen to everything they recorded in chronological order. A lot. And the song stuck out.

There's either nothing more to say than that song, or everything more. I can't really be sure. This band was formative for me, even if musically they weren't necessarily a branch I relied heavily upon--though they are usually termed "post-hardcore" which is the "newest genre" I find most interesting, but from bands that bear little or no resemblance, like The Blood Brothers or The Fall of Troy).

I know for certain they are not and will not be to many tastes, but there is always a place for them, for me, as awkward and uncomfortable as it has been sometimes, with the divided fanbase after the formation of the two splinter bands, and the relentless pretension that has circled fans of this band and those splinters.

Perhaps, then, it's a bit like they always say family is.

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